Basketball phenom Rui Hachimura is headed to the United States to play for the Gonzaga University Bulldogs, the most prestigious college program a Japanese player will have ever suited up for.
There will be challenges both on and off the court once Hachimura lands stateside, but a couple of former Zags are sure he won’t regret his choice.
Hachimura, a high school senior who signed a national letter of intent with the Bulldogs late last month, said during a news conference at Meisei High School in Sendai that he was extremely excited about the opportunity and wants to be a player that can help lead Japanese basketball.
Hachimura is on track to being a Zag next fall, but still has some unfinished business to handle before everything is official.
Hachimura and the Meisei staff indicated that the 17-year-old would still need to qualify academically, which includes meeting the SAT score requirements. So his debut as a Gonzaga player remains uncertain.
“I’ve got to study and do my best to get in,” Hachimura, the leading scorer at the 2014 FIBA Under-17 World Championship in Dubai, told reporters at the news conference. According to Kyodo News, he visited Gonzaga in October.
But if he passes the academic hurdle, Hachimura will enjoy playing in Spokane, Washington, according to a pair of ex-Zags who currently play in Japan’s National Basketball League.
“I’m glad he chose a great school and I hope he does extremely well over there,” said Ira Brown, a Hitachi Sunrockers forward who played for Gonzaga between 2007 and 2009.
Josh Heytvelt, another Sunrocker and Brown’s teammate at Gonzaga, said Hachimura would be “blown away by the support that Spokane shows.”
“I’m sure there’s other schools like Duke or UNC that have the same support around the schools and the fans,” said Heytvelt, last year’s NBL MVP. “But we don’t have a football team, which is a major sport in college. So everybody in the entire city loves Gonzaga basketball. It’s going to be an eye-opening experience for him. It’s pretty awesome to be part of it.”
Neither Brown nor Heytvelt have seen Hachimura play but have heard good things about Hachimura, a Toyama Prefecture native. Brown said he’s been a friend of Hachimura’s Beninese father since his time playing for the bj-league’s Toyama Grouses. (Brown, a former minor-league pitcher, was pleased to know Hachimura played baseball in elementary school before switching to basketball).
Heytvelt said the Zags have had international players, mainly from Europe, and that Hachimura wouldn’t have to worry about being the sole foreigner on the squad.
“(Assistant coach) Tommy Lloyd is amazing at going overseas and finding the best players possible,” said Heytvelt, a forward/center. “They just put the team together every year. The support in the boosters and everything really takes care of kids away from home. They really help you feel like you are part of it.”
Asked if Hachimura would be content with his decision, Brown quickly responded, “Oh, no doubt.”
“I don’t think he’ll regret it at all because people are great there,” Brown said. “The boosters will make sure he’ll have a great time. He has great teammates around him, who will for sure get him the ball. And as far as the coaches, he has great assistants. Coach Donny Daniels, Tommy Lloyd, Brian Michaelson . . . all those are great, great assistants. They will make sure he will get better, work hard as a player.”
At the same time, Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, an 11-time West Coast Conference coach of the year, is a tough coach in that he makes you really work, both Brown and Heytvelt said.
“Coach Few is . . . he finds a way to make you play hard,” Brown said. “He’s such a tough coach. He’s a great guy. He’s a great family guy off the floor. Absolutely phenomenal guy off the floor. But at the same time, he’ll degrade you to test your will as a person. He’s just trying to bring the best out of you. He wants to see how you’ll respond to adversity, and that’s his philosophy as a coach.”
Brown added that once you show your talent to the coaching staff, they’ll let you perform to the best of your abilities.
“At the Gonzaga system, if he proves himself, he’ll have the green light, he’ll be able to do whatever,” Brown said of the 198-cm Hachimura, who has mainly played inside as a forward but has been working on his outside skills over the last two years with an eye on a move to the U.S.
Brown said that even after Hachimura successfully enrolls, he won’t be able to neglect his academic study.
“Honestly, academically, it’s hard,” Brown said. “I think it’s great for him because academically it’s very challenging, because you really, really have to put in your time academically as well as on the court. So academically, you really have to focus, which you’ll have a lot of help as far as tutors and stuff to push him to make sure he does well.”
Hachimura and Meisei have won the All-Japan High School Tournament, dubbed the Winter Cup, the last two years, and will look to complete the three-peat in this year’s edition, which will be held between Dec. 23 and 29 in Tokyo.